Friday marks just over 11 years since Beck Hansen, better known as the musical chameleon Beck, last played Colorado’s famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre. We would hope the years have been kind to Hansen, who is now married and the father of two children. But how has Beck fared? The artist we know as Beck found success by defying predictability. That’s an accomplishment that feels much more difficult to pull off today.
Not all artists can control the distance between their creative self and their creations. And maybe that’s not even what music fans are looking for anymore.
In the mid-‘90s, Beck began releasing an impressive output of albums, each seeming to change directions drastically from its predecessor. Behind this vibrant music was the persona of the trickster Beck, a musical polymath and producer who seemed equally at home traversing from folk blues to punk, hip-hop to Tropicalia, funk to country balladry. If his more recent albums sound more cohesive, they still combine unexpected chords and melodies.
Beck’s iconoclastic style was influenced early on by his grandfather Al, who, with artists like Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, George Maciunus and Yoko Ono, was a member of Fluxus and Happening art movements in the 1960s. Fluxus carried the DIY flag — it was anti-art and anti-commercial, it employed collage and found objects. The Happening movement helped give birth to performance art and even the flash mobs of today. In short, the ethos of these movements was life as art, and Beck was an active teenage participant.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Beck often traveled to Germany to visit his grandfather. He collected cigarette butts for Al’s collages. In 1998, the grandfather and grandson collaborated on an exhibition of their work together called “Playing With Matches”. The track “Readymade” on the album “Odelay” refers to Duchamp’s theory of art as found object, a style echoed by Beck’s field recordings on his earlier albums. Along with Ween and Guided by Voices, Beck helped popularize the uncompromising low-fi sound of the early ‘90s. Beck has commented in interviews that he often arrives at a studio without written lyrics, though, to be accurate, the production of his albums is a painstaking and meticulous process.
Art doesn’t tell us who the artist is, it shows us who we are. And so the idea of the musician as chameleon certainly predates Beck. It almost killed David Bowie, as detailed in the recent BBC documentary “Five Years”. Some artists weren’t so lucky. And Bob Dylan’s career stood its ground as a vigilant refusal to be typecast. Maybe this is why Beck’s persona has relied on a more playful spirit, one that can be held at a distance for the sake of maintaining sanity. As a 44-year-old father, Hansen may one day soon decide the demands of this kind of creativity are too taxing.
If all this sounds a bit quaint and high-minded nowadays, it should. Many of us buy single tracks now instead of albums, so it’s songs that rule, not concepts or the quirky personas that give them life. Beck’s “Loser” and Ween’s “Push th’ Little Daisies” might still be hits today, but would we be enamored enough with their accompanying tracks to support those kinds of albums over decades of an artist’s career? The popularity of the song now tends to obliterate the nuances of its creator. In place of the odd, we now celebrate the familiar. What sometimes gets lost is that music, almost like the performance art of the Happening movement, requires a little unpredictability to be able to paint from the broadest palate of emotions.
The first time I saw Beck was at Lollapalooza in 1995, which happened to be on his 25th birthday and also about two weeks after Al Hansen’s sudden death. I had no idea then who his grandfather was or that he had passed away, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have presumed to know anything about what Beck might have been feeling about all of that. But I remember him looking kind of detached while the crowd made a failed attempt to sing “Happy Birthday” midway through the show. He gathered himself and the band tore through a version of the field-recording-inspired “Truckdrivin Neighbors Downstairs”, followed closely by a pretty polished version of “Loser”. I didn’t care whether it was Beck or Beck Hansen that was on stage. But it did feel important that he knew the difference, and especially that he had grasped the creative place where the two met.
Do we still care about the legendary production, the story an artist like Beck weaves, whatever we might interpret that story to be? Do we still want mystery?
Denver-based writer Sam DeLeo is a published poet, has seen two of his plays produced and recently completed his novel, “As We Used to Sing.” His selected work can be read at samdeleo.com.